The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling: Chapter 7: What If You're Wrong?

3/28/23 - 1h 4m - PDF Transcript


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And you walk west from Lawn Market, of a cobblestone street to Castle Hill.

There, in the shadow of an ancient castle, on most days you'll find a tour guide

wearing a black pointy witch's hat.

The tourists gather around her, forming a little half moon as they pull out their phones and cameras

to take pictures of a small stone monument.

The Witch's Well, commemorates an especially deadly series of witch hunts

and is dedicated to those who were put to death, many in this very place centuries ago.

They were tied to states, they were strangled and then they were burnt as witches.

Throughout Scotland more than 4,000 people were accused of being witches

and more than half of them were executed.

We don't know exact numbers because in some accounts it just says sundry witches,

not even dignify them with a name.

These sorts of witch trials have occurred throughout human history and around the world

where someone, most often a woman, was accused by her community, by her neighbors,

sometimes by her own husband or children, of being a witch,

which left her with a terrible decision.

She could confess and beg for mercy from the authorities,

which in some cases spared her life,

but in others only confirmed her guilt and led to her execution.

Or she could stand firm through her interrogation

and often torture and say to the crowd,

I am not what you say I am,

though this was often seen as a prideful lack of repentance,

which could also lead to her execution.

Regardless of her choice, one feature of many of these witch hunts

was that the very accusation itself was ultimately her condemnation.

Hi, Megan.

Hi, Stacy. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

I'm delighted to join you.

This is Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer

and author of The Witches, Salem, 1692.

Stacy, you published this book in 2016,

and I just wonder, was there something specific

that made you want to research and write this book

about witch trials at this specific moment in time?

There just seemed to me to be so many obvious

and not so obvious parallels between that moment

and basically what we do today on social media.

And I think what I was most struck by was the sense that oral culture

and social media were very similar

and the ability to slander someone,

to just really decimate someone's reputation very easily

was something that was a constant between 1692

and the world in which we were then living when I started writing.

In America, the witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts

are by far the most infamous.

It was there that a zealous group of fundamentalists,

the Puritans, turned on one another

and in the span of months,

accused over 200 people of witchcraft

and as Stacy writes in her book,

one of the forces behind this panic

was an almost paranoid sense of constant danger.

One can't overstate how important was the concept of watchfulness.

You were meant to be always watchful, always vigilant,

not only for the sake of your soul,

but obviously in the Massachusetts incarnation

for the sake of your safety.

The Puritans believed that evil was lurking all around them,

constantly tempting them with sinfulness

that could damn their souls,

but also because they were living on the edge of this new colony

in a land whose native people were hostile to their presence,

they were also living constantly on guard

against a real threat of physical danger.

But there was always a sense that you were under assault

or that you were likely to be infiltrated

or that the enemy was just beyond your means.

So there is this constant sense of being on the watchtowers

and needless to say, when you're watching for something

and you're watching vigilantly for something,

you often see something.

But Stacy's book makes clear

just how different the people of Salem were

from the image of the ignorant, pitchfork-wielding mob.

In fact, they could be obsessive about reading and legal theory

and the witch-trial judges themselves

were well-educated men, a number of them, at Harvard.

I think one of the oddities about New England

in the 17th century and the question of witchcraft

is that you're talking about

one of the most literate communities in the history of the world,

possibly the most literate community in the history of the world

and it was imperative that everyone pray

and in order to pray, one had to read.

So the literacy rate was tremendously high.

Moreover, the people who were the witchcraft experts that year,

which is largely to say the clergy,

are all of the immensely erudite people

who have read everything that was to be read

on the subject of witchcraft.

So it's a funny paradox in the sense that you have

a community who are invested most in this,

what we would today call delusion,

those individuals are in fact the best-read,

most highly-educated members of the community.

And what role did courts and laws

and the concept of justice play in this society?

Justice is central to Puritanism.

The court records from the early years of New England

are almost laughably comprehensive

and you see that even in the absence of lawyers

because there were no lawyers yet

in the point in Massachusetts history,

you have a very, very law-loving, court-loving society.

And because they were so literate and so litigious,

Stacy Schiff in researching her book

was able to read their letters, their journals,

their court records,

and gain a deeper insight into how they understood themselves.

In your best judgment,

what do you think is the most gracious understanding

that they thought they were up to

when they prosecuted these witches?

I think that what we tend to forget

is how strongly the belief in witchcraft

really penetrates this community

and how thoroughly and I think profoundly

everyone involved believed that he was doing something

that was good for the community.

We have some indication that they were unclear

about how to prosecute witchcraft

and how they will at times, one justice in particular,

they at times will appeal to the ministry

to ask what kind of evidence

they can rely upon in the courtroom

and how a witchcraft diagnosis could and should be made.

And obviously there were people here

who must have trumped up charges,

but for the most part,

all of the judicial techniques which should have been followed

were followed.

It's really fascinating again

about which trial is looking back.

We assume, I mean, the idea that they would be

strenuously adhering to the rules of evidence

and things that they had in place at the time

that they were really trying to do the right thing,

in other words, that's not the image that we get.

No, but you can see them grappling

with their consciences

and you can see them grappling with the testimony.

Arthur Miller actually makes a really interesting point

when he's talking about the crucible

and he talks about something which is so true

that you're in Salem, which is that you,

in the course of these kinds of prosecutions,

you can take on the characteristics of the thing that you abhor.

You become the thing that you most fear.

That's really the scariest part of all this, right?

Is that totally you could have people

who are again very smart, very well educated,

like very dedicated to the idea of justice,

to the idea that they want to do the right thing

and to be searching themselves so deeply

for what the right answer is

and how they should behave

and to still come to this kind of horrifying conclusion

where you have 19 people hanged

and it's a terrifying thing to realize

about what it means to be human.

After you have done all of your homework,

asked all of the authorities for their help

and essentially scoured your soul

and you still can make that kind of colossal error.

I was so ill-equipped for what happened to me.

I was living in a state of real tension

that I couldn't express to many people.

So, looking back, would you say that

the Christian parents were maybe part of a moral panic?

Yeah, absolutely. It's a scary world out there.

People can make mistakes. People can do bad things.

I was so ill-equipped for what happened to me.

I was living in a state of real tension

that I couldn't express to many people.

So, looking back, would you say that

people can make mistakes, people can do bad things?

In fact, show me the human being who hasn't.

You're trashing someone, but you feel like you're crusading.

I believe absolutely that there is something dangerous

about this movement.

Someone like her, she really is just truly at the heart,

bigoted, hiding in this sheep's costume,

pretending that she is an ally.

You're trying to have your views challenged.

Completely. I'm looking at this.

I'm thinking, am I missing something?

Just the opposite of everything that she wrote into those books.

I have a lot of hope for her.

There's part of me that still cares what she thinks, you know?

Chapter 7

What if you're wrong?

Months after my first visit,

my producers and I went back to Scotland,

back to Rowling's home,

back to her drawing room with her colour-coordinated books,

to have one more conversation with her for this series.

I wanted to ask her some of the questions from her critics

and to help me understand how she,

someone who has devoted so much of her life's work

to exploring human nature,

grapples with the fact that she might be wrong.


We've gathered here today.


Sound good.

What do you think is the crux of the difference

between what you believe and what your critics say you believe?

Oh, my God, I mean, the crux, there's an abyss.

I've been accused, I've been...

I have to laugh because the hyperbole is so extreme.

I've been told, I wish,

for the genocide of trans people,

I've been told, well, you want them to die,

you don't want them to exist.

And that, I think, is where we become...

It's not even infuriated.

Sometimes you feel a little despair.

You think maybe we need the storm to break

and for people to say,

but wait a moment, we do need to ask questions.

We've seen thousands of percent increase

in young women trying to escape their physical bodies.

Should we not be asking why that's happening?

I think the idea is that you have become,

for a lot of people,

the word is problematic,

that you might think of yourself as raising these valid concerns,

but they will criticise either the way you've gone about it

or the timing of it

or the language you've used and much more.

But before we get into some specifics,

I did just want to ask,

at this point,

how does it feel that there is this gulf

between how you see yourself

and how many other people now see you?

This will sound like an indirect answer,

but I promise you it isn't.

If I think about the people I most admire,

actually even the writers I most admire,

when it mattered, they stood up,

they didn't sit at home

and worry about their royalties

or worry about their public image greatly.

Not that I seek to be controversial,

that's as embarrassing as seeking to be

some sort of perfect.

I never wanted to be famous.

So if you're very invested in that,

then, of course, this is going to destroy you.

I mean, I don't say this in any self-aggrandising way,

but I think it could have destroyed some people.

If that's where you're very invested,

what has happened to me in the last few years,

I think there's no hope that you will come out of it

with your mental health intact

or that you wouldn't be, you know,

offering fulsome apologies.

I've learned, I've done better.

I understand that whether you mean it or not, you know that.

But now I have learned,

I did my learning before I spoke.

Everyone can do better.

I don't set out to cause pain,

but I see pain being caused

and I think damage being caused to women and girls

and I just can't sit here and not speak.

One of your critics is a trans woman named Natalie Wynne,

who goes by the name ContraPoints on YouTube,

and she made a long video essay critiquing your views on trans issues.

And in it, she goes through how she understands bigotry,

which she breaks down into two categories,

direct bigotry and indirect bigotry.

Direct bigotry is the sort of thing that my family does,

being openly contemptuous

and using slurs and demonizing people,

marginalizing people openly.

And indirect bigotry is things like

people are just asking questions,

they're just concerned,

they're engaging in debate,

activists have gone too far,

political correctness, cancel culture.

In other words, it's the idea that there are bad actors

who can hide behind virtues or less extreme rhetoric,

but who are still undermining people's rights.

I see this constantly and the most frequent example of that

is they're pretending to be concerned about children.

It's not about the children,

they really hate trans people.

Now, if you're saying that indirect bigotry

is asking questions

where you believe significant harm is done,

if you're saying indirect bigotry

is standing up for women's rights,

then you know what, guilty is charged.

I think it is a very bad faith argument to say

that people who are asking questions

are being indirect bigots

because, you know,

that itself in my view is a very bad faith position.

Do you think that some people do use those kinds of,

like I guess I'm thinking here of like actual,

people that most people would recognise as bigotry?

Pretty much everyone in the world

bar literal psychopaths

and clear terrible predators

are concerned about harm to children.

So that's a very common human trait.

It's a human trait to want to protect the vulnerable

and children are very vulnerable.

The trouble is, you see,

one may use concern about children

to justify other actions.

You know, QAnon felt

that children were being trafficked and raped.

One may be concerned about children

and be correct.

People around Jimmy Savile,

the UK's most famous predator,

believed children were being harmed,

but his celebrity and his ability

to raise money for charity was such

that nobody wanted to look into that.

So I'm not sure it's as simple as saying

people are using it.

Some people may genuinely believe

children are being harmed

and also genuinely not want anyone to be trans.

That is not my position.

You have said that you respect trans people.

You said that you would march with them.

That you think the transition is right for some people.

But you also say that there's a real difference

between biological women and trans women

and a meaningful distinction between the two

in their experiences.

And I think some of your critics point to that

and say, you're essentially making trans women

second-class women.

You know, like you're almost women

that despite all of their efforts

to live in the world as women,

as what feels right and authentic to them,

you are essentially saying,

I'll treat you as a woman.

You are an honorary woman.

But this distinction that you are emphasizing,

the biological distinction

that you see as being so important,

it can feel hurtful to them.

Like they are, you know, almost a thing.

But not quite.

Like something is being held back.

Can you understand the pain that that could cause?

Yes, is the short answer.

Yes, I can understand that hurt.

The thing is, women are the only group

to my knowledge that are being asked

to embrace members of their oppressor class

unquestioningly with no caveat.

Now, on an individual basis,

and I think many people new to this argument

would see it on that level

because many people of my generation particularly

think that we're talking about old-school transsexuals,

people who've been through full sex reassignment

because of profound gender dysphoria.

And I feel 100% compassion for such people

and I would absolutely respect

their pronouns, always have, always will,

and would want, as I say, them to have comfortable, easy lives.

This movement, though, is pressing for something different,

very different.

This movement has argued, continues to argue

that a man may have had no surgery whatsoever.

But if he feels himself to be a woman,

the door of every woman's bathroom, changing room,

rape centre should be open to him.

I say no, I'm afraid I say no.

And we are in a cultural moment

where that individual's hurt is being prioritised

over the hurt of women whose rights and boundaries

are under sustained assault.

And I think it's interesting to ask why

the pain of one group is being prioritised

over the pain of other groups.

Yeah, maybe a simpler way to ask it is that

is there a way in your mind to respect both pains,

even though at some point obviously there's going to be

a moment where action or decision has to be made.

I do believe that there is a way forward

in which women and girls retain their existing rights

and trans people are properly protected.

There is a way, absolutely a way to respect both points

but I think we're currently unfortunately

at a place where that is very difficult to achieve.

I believe feminists have tried very hard

to have this discussion.

How do we ensure everyone's rights and safety?

Where does fairness lie?

For example in issues like sport would be a very obvious one

and getting a lot of publicity at the moment.

Feminists are asking for certain spaces,

rape shelters would be a very obvious example

to remain female only or to have separate provision

for both groups because I don't know a single feminist

who doesn't acknowledge that trans people also,

of course, are victims of sexual violence.

But at the moment there seems to be a very black and white

view on the other side of the argument.

It's everything or nothing.

When it comes to the bathroom question,

we've heard from a lot of people that essentially

that the risks just don't seem very high to them.

Many of them can understand why, you know,

males and females shouldn't be housed in the same prison cells

but when it comes to bathrooms like there already aren't guards

at the door and like nobody's checking before we go in

and essentially a bad actor would come in regardless

of whatever our conventions are.

There is a social taboo.

There has been until very recently historically,

there has been a social taboo so that if my husband

decided that he wanted to use the ladies bathroom,

the women inside would feel confident in challenging

his right to be there and I think in my view

most decent men watching a man walking into

the ladies bathroom might well challenge him too.

That is now being eroded.

So we have statistics on this.

The Sunday Times issued a freedom of information

request from the government.

88% of sexual assaults happen in unisex spaces.

We have had multiple...

The Sunday Times data rolling is referencing

specifically addressed reported sexual assaults,

harassment and voyeurism in changing rooms

at sports centers and swimming pools

and compared the rates of incidents that occurred

in single sex versus unisex changing rooms.

We have had multiple instances in this country

and in America because I went and looked

because I was thinking well does this happen

and it happens, voyeurism, sexual assault.

The men particularly arguing that this isn't a risk

alarm me candidly, are they naïve?

Do they not know what their fellow men do?

There are a lot of critics who say

you and your comments are giving fuel to the right.

Well, my answer would be

I think you're giving fuel to the right.

This is why many left-wing feminists

in particular are sitting with their head in their hands.

The right has wanted for years and years and years

not all of the right but certainly the further right

and the religious right have wanted to castigate

the lesbian and gay and bisexual movement

is inherently degenerate

and part of the left's broader degeneracy.

When you defend the placing

of rapists in cells with women

you are handing the right a perfect opportunity

to say you see we told you the moral degeneracy

that would result if you say

homosexual relationships are okay

and I think for many leftists, for many feminists

we are despairing of the fact

that people are in our view

colluding with a deeply misogynist movement

which is benefitting politically speaking

the far right.

And I worry very deeply

that as the left becomes increasingly puritanical

and authoritarian and judgmental

we are pushing swathes of people towards not just the right

it's pushing them to the outright

that's what scares me

that particularly young men

when they're being told everything in the world is their fault

and they have no right to a voice

and they are everything that is wrong with society

it is unfortunately a human reaction

to go to the place where you will be embraced

and if the only place where you can make a joke

or be accepted

is a place that is full of poisonous ideas

then you're likely to go there

particularly when you're young

so I think that the left is making a tremendous mistake

in espousing this kind of

in my view quasi religious

incredibly witch hunting behaviour

because there will be people who will just feel

when they've been shamed and abused

and they feel it was unfair

where are they going to go

that worries me very deeply

in my life time

we've seen such a shift on the left

and I still would define myself as of the left

but you know I was born in the sixties

when transgression really was the preserve of the left

you know when challenging authority

and making the dark joke

and breaking societal norms

was very much the preserve of the left

I've lived to see

the left become incredibly puritanical

and rigid

and watching the alt right

and this is a new phenomenon

the alt right is not the conservative right

with whom I disagree on many many things

I'm just saying we're seeing a growth of something

very much facilitated by the internet

that alarms and disturbs me

and it worries me that the left are absolutely playing

into that demographic's hands

you wrote a book, many books

where young children have a lot of autonomy

make very adult decisions

and some of them come with really great risks

and that's like sneaking off into a dungeon

or running away to fight the most powerful wizard

who has ever existed

and some of your critics wonder

if there's something contradictory

in saying that young people are not old enough

to know who they are

to make this decision about

whether to medically transition

those are fantasy books

the point of fantasy is

that we are allowed to explore in imagination

things that frighten us, challenge us

we're allowed to escape into a world that's scary

but then we can come back, we can close the book

we can think about what we've read

we can think about what it means to make irreversible decisions

by contrast

we are dealing with the real world here

we're dealing with children in my view

being persuaded

that a solution for all distress

is lifelong medicalization

that is real world harm

there's no closing the book and walking away

there's no playing with this

experimenting with this

and not suffering harm

in my view

now people will say

perhaps but you've already said

that for some people this will be the answer

and I will say yes

for the persistent gender dysphoria

I believe

I certainly hope

that for adults who have found no other way

to resolve their gender dysphoria

transition may be the answer

I want to see those people protected

I want their rights protected

I wish them lives full of joy

and fulfillment

but when we're talking about children

I think that is a very different question

now you've said that

you've been immersing yourself in a lot of reading

arts and philosophy and academic literature

all around this subject

and I know that one thing

that's made this conversation about

minors medically transitioning

so contentious is that

because it's quite new

there aren't a lot of authoritative studies

and so with the studies that are out there

the assertion is that people on all sides

are cherry picking to fit their arguments

what evidence are you seeing

that you are right to be worried

I haven't yet found a study

that hasn't found

that the majority of young people

children and adolescents

experiencing gender dysphoria

will grow out of it

now that I haven't found a single study

that contradicts that

and I have gone looking

the majority of children will if allowed

to go through adolescence

many of them will grow up to

not all but many will grow up to be gay

and their gender dysphoria will resolve

why then if that's the evidence

are we immediately putting

children on to an affirmative path

can we follow the science

there's activism

and all activism isn't equal

I genuinely think

that we are watching one of the worst medical scandals

in a century

and I believe that those who should have known better

and I'm talking here not

God knows about trans people

gender dysphoria people

distressed young people

I'm certainly not talking about them

I am talking about medics

and those who have cheered this on unquestioningly

creating a climate in which

many people trying to raise red flags

have been intimidated and silenced

and I would ask

proponents of gender identity ideology

who are so militant

who are so determined on no debate

I would ask them

what if you are wrong

if I'm wrong

honestly hallelujah

if I'm wrong


people aren't being harmed

but if you are wrong

you have cheered on

you have created a climate

quite a threatening climate

in which whistleblowers

and young people themselves

have been intimidated out of raising concerns

I think it was in 2018

Professor Carl Hennigan

who is of the Oxford Centre

for Evidence-Based Medicine

and he spoke up publicly

and he said

we are watching an unregulated

live experiment on children

he was instantly condemned as a transphobe

by I think the Oxford University's

LGBT society

so when you say that people aren't being harmed

you are wrong

you mean physically

because your critics say

that you are harming people

with your words

and with the ideas that you are promoting

well I actually

I received an email right after I spoke out

in which a left wing man I know

emailed me and he said

a trans man had been killed in Germany

and he said to me

your rhetoric contributes to an environment

in which police are less likely to investigate that crime

now join the dots for me

what I had said at that point is

there used to be a word

for people who menstruate

is he genuinely arguing

that by saying women menstruate

police investigating murder will say

well better wrap up the investigation

these hyperbolic accusations

are thrown at anyone who challenges this ideology

your words will cause people to kill themselves

your words will stop police investigation

your words will cause men

to be violent trans women

blaming women for the violence of men

is a hallmark of something

that is not normally seen as progressive

that is misogyny writ large

to go back to your concern

about the left feeding a backlash

that might help the far right

there's been a real and rapid loss

of public trust and institutions of all kinds

over the past few years

and it sounds like this experience you're having

is causing you yourself to have doubts

about the trustworthiness

of some of our institutions in this moment

completely and I think that this is

I mean we've seen this play out in the last decade

this undermining of experts

you know the experts can't be trusted

the media can't be trusted

governments can't be trusted

and I would be lying if I didn't say

that I have lost faith in certain institutions

I have lost a degree of faith in

what is obviously the industry I know best

the publishing industry

I've been shocked by the positions

that publishing has taken

I am pleased and proud to say

my publisher has taken

my editor in fact has taken

a robust position on freedom of speech

and I was relieved that he took that position

not for my sake but it was a declaration

on freedom of speech that I think publishing

if publishers stand for nothing else

they should stand for plurality of views

and the other institutions that I have

definitely lost faith in are educational institutions

who I think have taken

a very dogmatic position on this

and are shutting down debate

freedom of thought and freedom of expression

and I

if we cannot look to those institutions

to protect those very precious things

we are in trouble and I am afraid

I think we are currently in trouble

well one of the concerns you voiced

is around language

and institutions using phrases like

birthing people or cervix havers

or people who menstruate

and some of your critics just don't see a problem with this

they see it as just making language

more inclusive

so for instance in the world of journalism

the Associated Press released a new style guide

explaining that when referring to transgender people

phrases like is a woman

are more to the point than

identifies as a woman

can you make the case to the skeptic

why is this an issue for you

that from the Associated Press

is hugely powerful

they've edged from identify as a woman

so a man identifies as a woman

and I think we all understand what that means

into is a woman

and that's precisely the creep

that I'm talking about

we are using language

to make accurate definition of sex difference


when I read news stories

women convicted of exposing her penis

on the street

now I'm laughing but it's not actually that funny

I hear myself saying the words

and that seems so absurd to me

but there is now a journalistic convention

that no matter the crime

women convicted of raping small boy

these are real news stories

I see that as political language

I see that as an ideological

I don't believe it to be factual

there's a body of feminists

who would say these are not our crimes

these are not women's crimes

and I would say something else

I don't believe you can accurately analyse

sexual violence or violence

when committed by males

and we know that 98 to 99%

of sexual violence is committed by men

women are

form 88% of victims of sexual violence

how can we record accurate data

how can we analyse this phenomenon

without being able to accurately talk

about who is the perpetrator

and who is the victim

so what you're saying is that

by changing the language there

to focus especially around sex crimes

to focus on gender rather than sex

you are obscuring an important fact

which is that biology actually is implicated there

exactly that

one of the things that your critics say often

is some version of

I wish you would listen

why isn't she listening to us


they think that

nobody could possibly disagree with them

if they heard what they were saying

and I truly believe

that the notion that I have listened

and I have read and I have learnt

and I've looked at the theory

and I've looked at personal accounts

and still disagree

is simply anathema

so what you're saying is

they think they want you to listen

when really they want you to agree

I'm afraid that isn't exactly what I think

and then the other extremely common question

that comes up

and it comes off almost like a plea

is just why

why are you doing this

why can't you just let people be who they are

and support them the way that you do

for these outsider characters in your book

if one of those people is listening right now

how would you talk to them

what would you say to them

can you speak to them

I would say to them

you as a human being

the self that you are

I have the utmost respect for you

I want you protected

I want you safe

I would treat you with respect always

and I would say

I'm worried

I'm worried that we're

I'm worried that you yourself

may have got caught up in something

that may ultimately harm you

but I'm asking some questions

I think some vulnerable groups

are being harmed

and that includes the gay community

that includes vulnerable women

and it includes vulnerable youth

now if you identify as trans

if that is an answer for you

then I'm with you 100%

but we are seeing mounting evidence

that this is not the answer for everyone

and that we may be living through a cultural moment

that we will look back on

not with pride

but with puzzlement

that we let it happen

We'll be right back.

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I'm really interested in the question of discernment

I think of this scene from one of your books

that was Harry Potter in the Order of the Phoenix

where Hermione

the hero and professor Umbridge

who is clearly in the wrong

have this showdown in class

Hermione says in a moment of defiance

that she disagrees with something in her textbook

and Umbridge berates her

like who are you

to disagree with this expert

who wrote this textbook and punishes her

now to anyone reading this

it is so frustrating and unjust

but I venture to say

that no one thinks they are the Umbridge

no one ever thinks that

no one ever thinks they're Umbridge

and some people see you as the Umbridge

you have these younger critics online

and they see Hermione

as standing up to an older person

with power

and they see themselves

as standing up to you

yeah and I understand

because they've told me very explicitly

how do you why they have


how do you know if you are a Hermione

or an Umbridge

well if you're having a lot of fun

doing it and getting a huge sense

of self satisfaction out of it

then I do believe

you may be want to stop and think

am I getting a huge ego rush out of this

that would be a good question

to ask yourself

you know is this giving me pleasure

because I can say from my heart

none of this has given me pleasure

it has given me anxiety

it has made me

at times feel vulnerable

so although I don't regret

anything I've had concerns

for my family's safety

some of the threats have not been

too amusing to me

there has been fallout

in my life inevitably

I still don't regret

standing up but I don't

it certainly hasn't given me pleasure

on any level

you know

one of the key moments for me

so you say

you talk about righteousness

there was an incident in 2019

I believe

here Rowling mentioned the incident

that we spoke about in chapter 4

where in a nearby Scottish town

a 10 year old girl

was sexually assaulted

by an 18 year old trans woman

in a public bathroom

some of the discourse I saw after that incident

really took me aback

because one of the first things I saw was

the turfs love it

when something like this happens


what thought process

has led you to believe

that the turfs

the demonised evil group

they just hate trans people

they want them all dead

we all know this, that's who they are

what leads you to believe

they want 10 year old children

escape rape

by a hares whisker

how has your black and white thinking

evolved to the point where you think


feminists like me

actively are gleeful

when women are raped or attacked

that's great we can use this

to bash trans women with

and I've seen that discourse

and I think if you're thinking

is that

it's not just irrational

that it's such a bad faith position

at no point

do you stop and say to yourself

there may be some nuance here

is this all moving pieces

on a chess board for you

is it all a game

does real world hurt and harm

not count at all

there's one other question

that I had about discernment

so how do you know if you're fighting

for something that is truly righteous

or just something that appears to be righteous

how do you know that the courage

to call out an injustice

isn't actually just a call to join

an unjust mob

so coming from westboro

where I believed so strongly

that I was doing the right thing

and then to leave and come to believe

that it was so destructive and harmful

I had this moment

in time and it lasted

for many months

where I was like how can I

trust my own mind again

because I was so certain

and so I was trying to

looking for some kind of solid footing

like what leg do I have

to stand on

how can I trust my mind

how do I not make the same mistake again and again

going forward

and so I basically came up with this list

of questions that kind of grew over time

and a few of them you've alluded to already

so these are the questions that I asked myself

to see like

am I starting to go down a bad path

so the first question is

are you capable of entertaining real

doubt about your beliefs

or are you operating from a position of certainty

yeah and I think that

that's key

I think it's when we are most certain

and when we're getting that rush of adrenaline

that says god I'm a good person

that's when we should most

question ourselves

that's when you need to stop

and ask yourself a question

and the second point is

can you articulate the evidence that you would need

to see in order to change your position

or is your perspective


we've discussed this already and I think that's

such a good question

because I asked myself that question

on this issue

what would I need to see and I could articulate

what I would need to see

to move me

from my position

my thought out position

or opponents perspective in a way that they recognize

or are you straw manning

and I think that's excellent

and I genuinely believe

I could articulate

my opponents position

because I've read their books

and I think people need to read

these things they need to understand

what is being argued

fourth one was are you attacking ideas

or attacking the people who hold them

always the ideas

are you willing to cut off close relationships

with people who disagree with you

particularly over relatively small

points of contention

no I'm not

a difference of belief is nothing to me

but I can imagine myself

no longer wishing to have a relationship

with a person who behaved

in certain ways towards me or towards others

because I do strongly believe


watch what people are doing not what they're saying

and so certain behaviors

would probably be a deal breaker for me

and that would include

demonizing others

for small transgressions

that would be a revelation

to me that that person wasn't who I thought

they were probably

and then the last one was

are you willing to use extraordinary

means against people who disagree with you

and by that I mean things like forcing people

out of their jobs or homes

you know violence or threats of violence

or things like what my family and I did

celebrating misfortune and tragedy

I don't know why but that question has actually

made me quite emotional that you say that to me

because I sit opposite you and I like you so much

and you're such a humane

and reasonable person

and to hear you

describing those behaviors is

I can really understand

why you had your long dark night of the soul

one thing that you said to me earlier

in our discussion really stuck with me

you said to me that not long before you left

you said to someone

an interviewer

I'm all in

and you told me

I believed that I had questioned myself

and I was fine with everything

but you said you hadn't

gone deep enough trust and obey

you'd never actually

taken apart the most fundamental

three words of your belief system

you'd never challenged those

can you talk about that

because that really interests me

yeah, so

I grew up in a family

of lawyers

so my mom is one of 13

and I think 11 of the 13

went to law school they were very

very smart, very analytical

very logical people

which I think surprised a lot of people

to learn

because it's easy to assume

that these are just kind of rednecks

backwards beliefs or something

and specifically with unexamined beliefs

these are just their personal prejudices

and they're living them out in the world

when in fact my grandfather

was a well-known

award-winning civil rights


he was somebody who had reason to believe

that he was on the right side of things

on a lot of things

and we were constantly looking around

at what other people believed

and other understandings of the bible

and then going back to the word

to the king james version of the bible

and trying to show

and memorizing chapter and verse

why everybody else was wrong

all the evidence so it was a constant

process of examination

asking these questions

but I realized before I left

that there were two fundamental

premises of our ideology

that I never


I never truly questioned

the idea that the bible was the literal

word of god

and that west bro's understanding of it

was the right one because again

it was all laid out there for me

and as much as many questions

as I asked

from those two premises essentially

everything else basically fell into place

there were a few

small contradictions that outsiders

were able to find on twitter

and I do wonder

like if not

for some internal contradiction

relatively small points

if that had never

revealed themselves to me

they'd never revealed themselves to me

then I would have just accepted

I would never have thought to question

those two basic premises

that actually is one of the reasons

that I came up with this list

because if I asked myself

all these hard questions

what I imagined

I really thought I was digging in deep

it was really terrifying

to realize

even when you're really trying

even when it's an earnest


and all of your intellect

and again I'm surrounded by people

who are all incredibly intelligent

and well intentioned

I know those people

we would do anything for each other

so it's just

the idea that such people

could still get to a place

that was so wrong

and so destructive

it helps me I guess

now feel a lot of

understanding and grace for people

even when they're doing harmful things

so it's that question about

are you talking ideas or the people who hold them

that is very

it's huge to me because

of the way that people were able to

understand that even though

I was doing horrible things

I was trying to do the right thing

and that was something that they could tap into

and so this is for me

even though it can be kind of

scary to see

what people are capable of

even when they're trying to do the right thing

it's also a hopeful thing

because that desire to do good

is something that you can tap into

which is why the desire to

shut down debate and conversation

is so alarming to me

because that is the only thing

that can ultimately change hearts and minds

and it's

I think the only real tool we have

outside of actual

force and violence to

make change

every crowd, every mob

is made up of individuals

and it's reaching the individuals

and not allowing us to become mob on mob

that will change things

for the best

if we're to have any hope

and your story obviously

is one of redemption

and I love everything that you say

and I'm good in your family

I truly do

ok very last question

why have you been willing

to talk to me

what do you hope this does

I've been willing to talk to you


because you wrote me that incredible letter

and because I think I've had

100 people at least say

explain yourself, explain yourself

but I felt that you and I

could have a conversation

that interested me

and in terms of what I hope this does

I suppose I hope people

enjoy the podcast honestly

I don't mean this in any arrogant way

and I don't mean this in any

self-pitying way

but I feel that I've said

what I've said

and maybe when the mist clears

some people will understand better

some will always

hate me for what I've said

I accept that

I know I won't ever regret

having stood up on this issue


that's the price you pay

if you want

to be

universally an eternally beloved

then you must

curate your image in a way that I'm simply not prepared to do

I'm not in the business of doing that

and I'm not taking a long bet here

I'm not thinking

I think this cultural moment will pass

and therefore I will be vindicated

by the future holds

I only know that

I would have betrayed myself

and I passionately believe

I would have betrayed a lot of women and girls

if I had not stood up on this issue

there are more important things

in this world than being popular

and that doesn't mean

it's more important to me to be right

that means it's more important to me to do the right thing

Joe Rowling

thank you so much for speaking with me

thank you

are we good?

do you have anything else to say?

you've been listening to the witch trials

of JK Rowling

this series is dedicated to everyone out there

who's trying to have difficult conversations

trying to listen with empathy

and to speak with honesty

and in good faith

even when it's hard

so much has happened since we started our reporting

and we'll be back in a month or so

with a bit of an epilogue

so stay tuned

in the meantime

if this show has meant something to you

if it has moved you

or provoked you

or inspired you

or maybe caused you to question some of your assumptions

please share it with your community

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to help others discover the show

and now, for some thank yous

the witch trials of JK Rowling

was produced by Andy Mills

Matthew Bull

and me, Megan Phelps Roper

with production and editing support

from Candace Mattel Kahn

the series is brought to you by the free press

the show was mixed by Matthew Bull

sound design by Andy Mills

and Matthew Bull

editorial advising

by Barry Weiss

additional editing support

from Emily Yafi

original music composed and performed

by Peter Leilish

Kobe Beenert

John Ivins

and Matthew Bull

the wonderful readings from Harry Potter

and the Philosopher's Stone in episode 1

were performed by actor Crispin Letts

with special permission

from JK Rowling

our beautiful artwork was created

by Eliana Blazer-Gould

with art direction

by Suzy Weiss

fact checking by Natalie Ballard

and me

special thanks to Stephanie Roper

Kate Fjelland

Rebecca Salt

Noah Phelps Roper

Laura Floyd

Lucy Biggers

Jonathan Hunt

Isaac Grafstein

Alex Burns

Camille Foster

Aaron Bull

Katie Herzog

Jesse Single

Joy Neal

Kat Rosenfield

Lacey Green

and Jonathan Haidt

and to many patient and supportive

members of my family

including Joyce Marlin

Tor and Solvee Lynn Fjelland

Josh Phelps Roper

Nancy Taves

and Tom Kennett

and of course

our thanks to JK Rowling

for inviting us into her home

last but not least

our most profound thanks

goes to everyone who shared their stories

with us

and to our friends

who listened and give us encouragement

and feedback along the way

goodbye for now

but we'll see you all soon in the epilogue

and we're doing that by printing stories

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and publishing a wide range of opinion pieces

all in an effort

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Machine-generated transcript that may contain inaccuracies.

Host Megan Phelps-Roper asks J.K. Rowling to respond to pushback from some of her critics. The two also discuss the difficulty of discernment—why it can be so hard to know what’s right.

Produced by Andy Mills, Matthew Boll, Megan Phelps-Roper, with special thanks to Candace Mittel Kahn and Emily Yoffe.

This show is proudly sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. FIRE believes free speech makes free people. Learn more at